• The Major Scale Revival Program [Week #3] — “Composition And Improvisation Of Tons Of Melodies And Melodic Lines”

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    The major scale is a very useful resource when it comes to composition and improvisation.

    This is the third week of the major scale revival program and we’ve covered a lot so far:

    …and we’re taking it a notch higher in this lesson with the concepts we’re going to be covering.

    If you’re a song-writer, stage-performing or studio-recording musician, you’ll really appreciate this lesson because we’ll be discussing the major scale from a very creative standpoint and you’ll be able to maximize the major scale when it comes to the following:

    1. In the composition of melodies
    2.  In the improvisation of melodic lines

    Recommended: If you’re just joining us, please here’s an Overview Of The Major Scale Revival Program. Be sure to check it out and learn more about this program before you go any further.

    In the first segment of this lesson, I’ll be refreshing your mind on the concepts of composition and improvisation, then, we’ll take it up from there.

    A Background On Composition And Improvisation

    I’m very certain that these two concepts are not very new to you and I want to assume that you’re familiar with the term “composition” even if the term “improvisation” is new to you.

    Composition and improvisation are two broad topics that will take several volumes of blogs to deal with. However, you must realize that both concepts are related and we’ll be ending this segment by exploring the relationship between them.

    A Short Note On Composition

    A good way to start is with the definition of the term composition.

    Although there are so many ways to define composition (when it has to do with music), here’s a definition that will fit into the purpose of this lesson:

    Composition is the creative process of making a new piece of music using elements of music like melody, harmony, rhythm, etc.

    A person who is involved in this creative process is known as a composer and can also be called a songwriter in certain situations.

    In the composition of a melody and harmony, the notes and chords used are derived from scales and in the major key, the major scale is the principal source for chords and scales.

    Let’s say we’re composing right now and we want to add notes to the word “composition” in the key of C major:

    We’ll have the following syllables:

    Com [1st syllable] – po [2nd syllable] – si [3rd syllable] – tion [4th syllable]

    Using the major scale, we can add any note to each of the syllables. But as your composer for today, I’ll add the following notes:

    Com (C):

    …po (C):

    …si (G):

    …tion (G):

    If you play the melody for “composition” as given above, it sounds like the the nursery rhyme Twinkle twinkle Little Star doesn’t it?

    Away from nursery rhymes, a vast majority of songs you know are composed using the major scale and as we progress, you’ll learn more about how this works.

    The Relationship Between Composition And Improvisation

    Composition and improvisation are both concerned with a creative process of making music. However, the former is prearranged while the latter is spontaneous and on-the-spot.

    So, this means that an improviser is one who can compose on the spot — without any preparation. He/she can instantly manipulate notes to create melodic lines and harmonies.

    I’m sure you’ve come across a Jazz music performance where musicians are improvising over songs like Autumn Leaves. After playing the song, they go ahead into the improvisation; where they manipulate melodies and harmonies and this is done instantly.

    Autumn leaves is the composition, while the tons of melodic lines and mind-blowing harmonies that the musicians make up on the spot are on the improvisation side of things.

    The Composition Of Melodies Using The Major Scale

    A melody can be defined as a series of meaningful notes that are played separately and that’s just a fancy way of defining the tune of a song.

    When you hear the following notes in the key of C major:








    …they could sound like the song Mary Had A Little Lamb and that’s because those are the melody notes that make up the melody of the song.

    So, the melody is the tune of a song and is arguably its most recognizable part.

    The major scale can be used in the composition of melodies and as you should know by now, melodies can either ascend or descend. An ascending melody will consist of notes that are increasing in pitch while a descending melody will consist of notes that are decreasing in pitch.

    The “Mary Had” part of the melody of the song Mary Had A Little Lamb is a descending melody and you can see the notes descending from E to C:

    Ma (E):

    …ry (D):

    …had (C):

    …and then the “a Little Lamb” part features an ascending melody (back to the E from C):

    a (D):

    …Li (E):

    …ttle (E):

    …Lamb (E):

    I’m very sure that you know what the ascending and descending direction is. So, we’ll proceed into learning the two motions that every melody may likely have.

    Motion #1 — “Stepwise Motion”

    Melodies that move from one note to an adjacent scale tone are basically making a stepwise motion that is pretty much like climbing a staircase.

    In other words, if the first melody note is C:

    …and it’s an ascending melody, the next melody note is most likely to be D:

    …and that would be followed by E:

    …and then F:

    But if the melody is descending, then the next melody note is most likely going to be B:

    …then A:

    …followed by G:

    “How Am I Able To Determine The Melody Notes?”

    Although the stepwise motion looks easy, that’s only because we’re in the key of C major:

    In the key of E major:

    …or any other key (with a different black and white note combination), you’ll have to rely on your knowledge of the major scale to play the melody.

    A descending melody like that of the song I Surrender All will descend from E:

    …to D#:

    …to C#:

    …to B:

    …then to A:

    …to produce:






    You can clearly see that the stepwise motion of the melody and the knowledge of the major scale in the key of E major makes it very easy for the melody to be played.

    We didn’t descend from E:

    …to D:

    …to C:

    …and this is because D and C are not scale tones in the E major scale:

    Motion #2 — “Skipwise Motion”

    In the skipwise motion, the melody notes actually skip in thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths, and even an octave in both directions.

    For example, the melody notes of the song Kum Ba Yah goes:

    C (kum):

    E (ba):

    G (yah):

    …and you can see the skipwise motion from C to E (a third interval):

    …and from E to G (another third interval):

    Another good example is the The Star Spangled Banner which is the national anthem of the United States of America:

    O (G):

    …oh (E):

    …say (C):

    …can (E):

    …you (G):

    …see (C):

    You can see the melody skip downwards in third intervals from G to C and then up again in thirds and a fourth interval until and octave is reached.

    In the skipwise motion, thirds and fourths are commonly used, fifths and sixths are not frequently used, and then sevenths and octaves are rarely used.

    So, always look out for third and fourth intervals in the skipwise motion; thirds most especially.

    If a melody note is C:

    …it can either skip upwards by a third (to E):

    …or downwards by a third (to A):

    All you have to do is to go down or up by three or four scale steps and you’ll be doing a skipwise motion. But if you have to skip properly, then you’ll have to skip from one scale tone to the other. In the key of E major:

    …a third above E is G#:

    …while in the key of C major:

    …a third above E is G:

    For all I’ve said so far, it’s clear that the major scale provides you with the note options whether you’re making a stepwise or skipwise motion and that’s why the major scale is very important.

    “Keep In Mind…”

    You can hardly come across a melody that is only moving in a stepwise motion or in a skipwise motion.

    A vast majority of the melodies we know are produced by a combination of the stepwise and skipwise motion in both directions — ascending and descending.

    However, as long as you know your major scale, you can play a lot of the melodies you know and this is because the major scale is the principal source where the notes of most melodies are derived from.

    The Improvisation Of Melodic Lines Using The Major Scale

    The concept of improvisation is way beyond what we can cover in just this lesson or in the major scale revival program.

    But we’re going to be looking at how the major scale can be applied in the improvisation of melodic lines and we’re starting out with the scalar approach to improvisation.

    Check it out!

    Approach #1 — “Scalar Approach”

    In the scalar approach to improvisation, the major scale and its modes are used in a variety of ways. So, we’ll get started by refreshing our minds on the seven modes:

    C to C:

    …is the Ionian mode.

    D to D:

    …is the Dorian mode.

    E to E:

    …is the Phrygian mode.

    F to F:

    …is the Lydian mode.

    G to G:

    …is the Mixolydian mode.

    A to A:

    …is the Aeolian mode.

    B to B:

    …is the Locrian mode.

    Each of these modes can be improvised with and this depends on these two things:

    1. The chord
    2. The chord tones

    If you’re improvising over the 1-chord in the key of C major:

    …and that’s the C major seventh chord:

    You’ll have to start the major scale on each of the chord tones of the C major seventh chord and that’s C, E, G, and B respectively:

    Ionian (C to C):

    Phrygian (E to E):

    Mixolydian (G to G):

    Locrian (B to B):

    Over the D minor seventh chord:

    …we’ll start and end the major scale on D, F, A, and C respectively:

    Dorian (D to D):

    Lydian (F to F):

    Aeolian (A to A):

    Ionian (C to C):

    Attention: Kindly note that the scales given can be played over tons of rhythmic varieties.

    So, feel free to start and end the major scale on each of the chord tones of every chord built off the tones of the scale. For the 4-chord (the F major seventh chord):

    …you’ll be starting and ending the major scale on F, A, C, and E respectively.

    The same thing is applicable to all the chords built off the major scale and in all twelve major keys.

    Approach #2 — “Intervallic Approach”

    There’s an intervallic approach to improvisation and although it looks like we’re doing the skipwise motion, it’s described as the intervallic approach.

    In this approach, you can improvise with the major scale by starting on any note of your choice, and then ascending or descending using a stipulated interval — second intervals, third intervals, fourth intervals, fifth intervals, etc.

    Heck, you can even mix and match the intervals; you can go up a third, go down by a fourth, go up by a second, then go down by a third. For example, if we start from C:

    …we can go up a third (to E):

    …then go down a fourth (to B):

    …then go up a second (to C):

    …then down again by a third (to A):

    You can clearly see that we’re already creating a melodic line by mixing and matching a variety of intervals. However, the notes are based on the C major scale and this means that if you don’t know your major scale so well, you would find it difficult to improvise using the intervallic approach.

    If we use the same intervals in the key of Db major:

    …and starting on C:

    We can go up a third (to Eb):

    …then go down a fourth (to Bb):

    …then go up a second (to C):

    …then down again by a third (to Ab):

    You can clearly see that the notes played changed with respect to the Db major scale:

    …and we’ll not be needing many of the notes from the C major scale:

    Final Words

    Using the major scale, you can master the concept of improvisation and composition in any key.

    You’ve understood the basics of composition (when it has to do with the melody) and how improvisation works; so there’s no stopping you. Go ahead and move from key to key, playing melodies and melodic lines.

    Special thanks to Jermaine Griggs for the opportunity given to me to share this valuable information with you and don’t forget to share this lesson on all social media.

    All the best and see you in the next lesson.

    The following two tabs change content below.
    Onyemachi "Onye" Chuku (aka - "Dr. Pokey") is a Nigerian musicologist, pianist, and author. Inspired by his role model (Jermaine Griggs) who has become his mentor, what he started off as teaching musicians in his Aba-Nigeria neighborhood in April 2005 eventually morphed into an international career that has helped hundreds of thousands of musicians all around the world. Onye lives in Dubai and is currently the Head of Education at HearandPlay Music Group and the music consultant of the Gospel Music Training Center, all in California, USA.

    Attention: To learn more about this, I recommend our 500+ page course: The "Official Guide To Piano Playing." Click here for more information.


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